Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Detour (1945) and Ann Savage

In 1945, a Z-list studio called Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) gave director Edgar G. Ulmer six days and thirty-thousand dollars to make a movie. PRC was just one of the many low rent outfits on Hollywood's "Poverty Row" churning out bargain basement movies to stick at the bottom of crappy double features around the country. The studio assigned Ulmer a little script, a no-name cast, and a deadline. The movie he delivered a week later was as hard and cheap as a bucket of nails. And it was a masterpiece.

Detour is sixty-seven minutes long. It stars actors whose careers were in the toilet (a toilet soon to be flushed), and its lack of a budget is apparent in every scene. Yet these constraints seem perfectly suited to the story Ulmer is telling. Detour, which is about as noir as a film has ever been, tells the brief story of the destruction of a penniless loser. He starts out as a penniless loser; that’s at the beginning, when things are good.

The movie stars Tom Neal as Al Roberts, a down-on-his luck piano player in love with a down-on-her-luck singer. The singer heads west for California, looking to hit it big. She doesn't hit it big, but after a while Roberts follows her out there anyway. His career is going nowhere, and he's broke, so he has to hitchhike. He accepts a ride from a traveling salesman. The guy talks too much, and he's kind of an asshole, but hey, a ride's a ride. It beats walking.

Then something terrible happens. The guy up and dies, and though it's not Al Robert's fault, it sort of ends up looking like it is. He makes a spilt decision to leave the body in the desert, take the man's car, money and clothes. It's not a good idea, but neither is giving a ride to a hitchhiker the next day.

Her name is Vera, and when Vera climbs into the car with Al Roberts, the movie goes from being a cheap, effective little thriller into being something darkly wonderful. Vera, played brilliantly by Ann Savage, may well be the meanest woman who ever stomped into a film noir. She's not a beautiful seductress like Jane Greer in Out of the Past, or a bored housewife like Audrey Totter in Tension. She's not pretty. She's not sexy. She's a drunk who hates everyone she meets. She's not smart either, but, then again, you don't exactly have to be smart to be smarter than Al Roberts. She sees through him the moment she meets him, and then she decides she owns him.

I won't write any more about the plot, but I don't have to really. One of the interesting things about Detour is the way it begins to set up a plot complication at about the forty-five minute mark (Vera hatches a scheme to make some big money) but then veers off. The movie doesn’t need anymore plot complications. Al and Vera aren’t made for plots. They're too small time for that. They spend the last fifteen or so minutes of the movie swilling liquor and arguing in a dank little motel room, just a couple of cockroaches scurrying across the grimy carpet until one of them dies.

With such a tight focus, a lot depends on the performers. While Tom Neal was never much of an actor (he’s a total nonentity in something like Blonde Alibi), he had a quality of innate insecurity that worked well for the character of Al Roberts. Ulmer uses Neal’s eyes and their intrinsic worry in a recurrent image in which he zooms close to the actor’s eyes and lets the rest of the screen, including the rest of his face, go dark. It’s a cheap effect, but it works in large part because Neal had interesting eyes. Presumably they got more interesting, but Neal eventually stopped acting and opened a lawn care business. He was just another washed-up actor who drank too much until 1965 when he shot his third wife in the back of the head with a .45. He was released from prison after serving seven years and died of a massive heart attack within a few months. It’s a hard life story but oddly fitting for an actor immortalized by Al Robert’s lamentation, “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out its foot to trip you.”

As good as Neal is here, however, the film really belongs to Ann Savage. She doesn’t appear until about the halfway mark, but that is merely a testament to the impact of her performance. With the character of Vera, Savage boils down the femme fatale to pure psychological grit. Vera’s not beautiful and she’s not brilliant, but she is tougher than Al Roberts. So she’s going to push him around, pure and simple. It is one of the great performances in film noir (hell, I think it’s one of the great performances in cinema), but it couldn’t save Savage’s career. Like Neal, she quit acting not long after this film and disappeared from the public view. For years, people assumed her life had ended as tragically as Neal’s, but in the eighties, she began to resurface in small parts in small films, and, happily, by the time Detour became regarded as a classic she was able to enjoy the delayed fruits of her success. Most recently, she appeared in Guy Maddin’s wonderful, surrealist My Winnipeg, playing a character who could have easily been related to Vera. Her career is a testament to the way a great film—even a cheap little monster like this one—can endure.

Detour is noir stripped to its bare essentials. It may not be the best noir ever made, but it's the purest. A man, a woman, a few bucks, a couple of nights, liquor, cigarettes, death. Maybe it's fate. Maybe it's bad character. The only thing for certain is that it doesn't matter.

That's the nihilistic heart of the genre.


I found out this afternoon that Ann Savage died in her sleep a few days ago, on Christmas. It's sad, and a real loss to movie fans, but one very happy thought is that Ms. Savage lived long enough to see herself remembered. I highly recommend Eddie Muller's excellent book Dark City Dames, which features a long section on Ann Savage. The story of how she discovered, after living for decades in absolute obscurity, that she was a cult figure--that without knowing it she was still a movie star--is a priceless bit of reading.

Here's a brief interview with Savage from a documentary on Ulmer. At the end of the interview there's a brief bit where someone says they shot "Detour" in fourteen days. Every single source I've read on the making of the film--including Muller, Bogdanovich, and both Ulmer and Savage--all say it was shot in six.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dishonored (1931)

The other night I went to the Smithsonian for the last installment of their series on the work of Josef von Sternberg. I’m disappointed I didn’t make it to any of the other films in the series, but I was lucky in one respect: the night I went they were showing an extremely rare print of von Sternberg’s wonderful romantic comedy Dishonored.

This was von Sternberg’s third film with Marlene Dietrich, and in some ways it’s the most fun. The Blue Angel (1930) was iconic and set the Marlene myth in place, and Morocco (1930) was a good follow up (with Marlene at her most androgynously beautiful in a tux and top hat), but with Dishonored von Sternberg created opulent goof, a film as silly as it is beautiful. The Scarlet Empress (1934) might be von Sternberg’s best—and most baroque—film, but Dishonored is his most entertaining.

The film begins with Marlene in the rain pulling up her stockings. She’s doing what she has to get by in WWI Austria, and we infer that what’s she doing involves befriending gentlemen for the night. She befriends just such a man (Gustav von Seyffertitz), but it turns out he’s not after sex. He wants to recruit her to spy on the Russians. Marlene figures “why not?” and starts befriending Russian spies for the night. Her assignment eventually involves her getting mixed up with Russia’s top spy, Col. Kranau (Victor McLaglen, in a fun performance). The two carry on an affair—stretching back and forth between their countries—while trying to have the other thrown into jail or shot of espionage. Ah, love.

Josef von Sternberg was an odd man, a control freak and famous misanthrope who alienated many of the people he worked with. His control of Dietrich was legendary, but Dietrich herself never seemed too disturbed by it. She knew that von Sternberg had molded her into an international star, and she further knew that having this brilliant director obsess over crafting sumptuous visual feasts with her at the center was a good thing. As von Sternberg once said, “The thing you have to understand is that Marlene is not Marlene. I’m Marlene. No one understands that better than her.”

This film is in love with her. The camera and light caress her—von Sternberg essentially worked as his own cinematographer—but the story allows her moments of unadorned goofiness. Watching Marlene get a Russian officer drunk is a joy to behold. Dishonored also keeps the tragic element of the Marlene persona in place—she will, of course, sacrifice all for her one true love—but this movie contains hands down the funniest execution ever put on film. How could anyone resist that?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I, The Jury (1953)

Legend has it that Mickey Spillane wrote his first Mike Hammer mystery I, the Jury in nineteen days. The novel immediately became a sensation, and Spillane churned out Hammer mysteries like a one-man pulp factory for the rest of the forties and fifties. The novels were graceless, violent and—by the standards of the time—borderline pornographic. Spillane sold over two hundred million copies around the world and made more money than the US Treasury. It didn’t take Hollywood long to come knocking on his door.

Of course, the most famous attempt to translate Spillane’s hardboiled vision to the screen was Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly. It’s a noir classic. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s by far the best adaption of anything Spillane ever wrote. Having said that, however, you might also want to take a look at Harry Essex’s 1953 I, the Jury, Hollywood’s first crack at Mike Hammer. It’s not great art, but neither was any book by Mickey Spillane. In many ways, in fact, Essex’s film has more of the cheap flavor of a Hammer novel than does Aldrich’s more ambitious approach. While Kiss Me Deadly takes Spillane’s work as a starting point, I, the Jury takes it as an end point.

The movie starts off with a murder, followed by some credits bursting onto the screen. Hammer appears in the next scene swearing revenge. That’s the setup for a lot of Mickey Spillane’s work. Someone dies, and Hammer sets out to find and execute the killer. The construction of the movie follows the construction of the book. It’s up the viewer to decide if they want to take the time to try and untangle the plot. Essentially the story is a series of interviews. Hammer goes from one place to the next and talks to potential suspects. The suspects alternate between men like George Kalecki (Alan Reed) and women like the sexy psychologist Charlotte Manning (Peggy Castle). The conversations with the men invariably end in violence. The conversations with women invariably end in sexual innuendo. At the end, Hammer suddenly figures out who the killer is and carries out the execution.

The irrecoverable problem of this film is at the center. In a fatal bit of casting, Hammer is played by relative newcomer Biff Elliot in a charmless performance constructed mainly of barks and punches. Someone like Charles McGraw might have pulled off Mike Hammer this way and still injected a little personality into the character, but Elliot’s performance has as much personality as a headache. Since he is at the center of nearly every scene, nearly every scene has a problem.

Nevertheless, despite this setback the film itself isn’t half bad. It’s directed by a screenwriter named Harry Essex who had a deep involvement with noir in the classic period (he wrote, among other things, Phil Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential). He does what he can with Elliot’s limitations and milks as much as possible out of the rest of the cast (including a brief turn by Elisha Cook Jr. in a Santa Claus suit). The real MVP here, however, is cinematographer John Alton. Alton was, of course, the king of noir cinematography and I, the Jury is a hell of a good looking picture. Halfway through the movie, there’s a scene set in the basement of a library. Hammer is talking to a cop. In the background, another cop is smoking a cigarette, his smoke curling up into a hot white light above him. It’s just one gorgeous noir visual, causally tossed off, but Alton has packed the film full of them.

The other major selling point of the film is the fine performance by Peggy Castle as the sexy shrink, Charlotte Manning. She has the exact combination of aloof beauty and devious intelligence that the role calls for, and one wonders what she might have done opposite a decent actor in the lead role. In any event, 1953 was a good year for Castle, in addition to this film she also appeared in Karlson’s masterpiece 99 River Street. Sadly, though, she didn’t have many good years left. She made some more noirs, usually as femme fatales (including another Spillane adaptation, the ode to misogyny The Long Wait), did some television and then retired from acting. After her Hollywood career, she fell on hard times and drank herself to death at the age of 45, another tragic story from the land of sunshine.

Postscript: I’ve always thought the natural actor to play Hammer would have been Robert Ryan. Hammer is essentially a sociopath, and Ryan could have done interesting things with this interpretation of the character. You could look at his performance in On Dangerous Ground (1952) and see what I mean.

Spillane wasn't my favorite writer, but he was a hell of a good interview. Check him out here talking about his work and the writing business in general.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Act of Violence (1948)

I know of no more underrated movie in the film noir canon than Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence. It is a masterpiece of the highest order, a perfect encapsulation of the themes and style of noir, and while it is not as well known as movies like Out of the Past and The Maltese Falcon, it is every bit their equal. A reassessment of this film is in order.

The movie begins with a man in a hat and trench coat limping across a city street at night. He climbs the steps of a flophouse, goes to his room and retrieves a .45 from a drawer. He checks the clip and slams it back into the gun. The title “Act of Violence” bursts onto the screen and we’re off and running without any further credits. The man is Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan). He’s on his way to find Frank Enley.

When we first meet Frank a few scenes later, he’s being congratulated by a civic gathering at the groundbreaking of a new housing division in his small California town of Santa Lisa. Frank’s a happy man, a war hero who has returned from overseas and made the best of the postwar American utopia. He’s got plenty of money and friends, a pretty young wife, and a healthy two-year old son. Things are going great, and then Joe Parkson gets to town.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, and I certainly don’t want to reveal much about Joe’s reasons for wanting to kill Frank. Their connection goes back to the war, but uncovering their shared history is pivotal to the viewer’s enjoyment of the film. Figuring out just how much of the darkness encroaching on this small town ideal is represented by Joe and how much of it is represented by Frank is just one of the film’s great surprises. Soon Frank is on the run. He runs up to Los Angeles with Joe quick on his heels. It is here in the LA section of the film that Act of Violence achieves greatness. It has been a compelling thriller up to this point, but in LA, as Frank’s history is revealed and he begins his descent into the seedy underworld in a desperate attempt to flee history's consequences, the film becomes a first rate drama.

Fred Zinnemann is an interesting director because while he was incredibly successful— with a shelf full of Oscars and a list of box office blockbusters to his credit—he is a guy who gets curiously little respect. The auteurist critics never gave him any love, with High Noon in particular coming under fire from partisans of Hawks and Ford who didn’t want to see anybody upstage Rio Bravo or The Searchers. Andrew Sarris, in his influential ranking of directors, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1928-1968, damned Zinnemann—along with John Huston and Billy Wilder—to a hell entitled “Chapter Five: Less Than Meets the Eye”.

While I’m in sympathy with the notion that popular success and industry approval are meaningless (my favorite director is Orson Welles, after all), I think Zinnemann has gotten a raw deal. A consistently intelligent and skillful filmmaker, he worked in many disparate genres and succeeded in most of them. With Act of Violence he pulls off the impressive feat of making a textbook film noir before any such textbook had been written. Most of the noir elements are here—the postwar moral ambiguity, the use of shadows and slanted angles, the daytime beginnings followed by the tumble into night, the guilt, the fatalism, Robert Ryan—and the film utilizes these elements to dramatize the essential noir theme of an ordinary man who must watch in horror as his sins catch up to him. Working with cinematographer Robert Surtees, Zinnemann employs the style of noir with such precision and maturity that Act of Violence almost feels like a conscious attempt to fulfill the promise of the genre. Many noirs have a still-evolving quality, bearing traces of studio convention or the vestigial elements of other genres, but Act of Violence is a completely realized noir from start to finish.

The story came from Collier Young, who had an instinctual feeling for the dark undercurrents of American society. He would later help his wife, director Ida Lupino, mine this territory, most notably in her masterpiece The Hitch-Hiker which, like this film, takes ordinary people and plunges them into moral chaos. Young, screenwriter Robert Richards, and Zinnemann all identified this plunge as the main thrust of Act of Violence. Frank Enley’s descent from sunny Santa Lisa to the dirty, dark streets of LA mirrors his fall from the protective façade of his current life back into the harsh realities of his past life.

Enley is played brilliantly by Van Heflin in a performance that requires him to hit just about every note you can ask an actor to hit: goodness, happiness, fear, sheer terror, despair, resignation. He’s given great support by Robert Ryan (as good as always), but Mary Astor just about steals the movie as a middle-aged prostitute who picks up a drunk and confused Frank and takes him back to her place. If you only know her as Brigid O’Shaughnessy from The Maltese Falcon, you are in for a surprise. This is the best performance she ever gave.

There aren’t many superlatives I have left to throw at Act of Violence, but I’ll give it one more: it is my favorite film noir.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

There are those who call The Magnificent Ambersons a great film. There are those who think it is one of the best films ever made. They are wrong. It is a bad film. It is, in its heartbreaking way, one of the worst movies ever made. That The Magnificent Ambersons for much of its running time shows the unquestionable marks of genius is beyond dispute. Even more than with Citizen Kane this film amazes us with the jaw-dropping self-assurance of its creator. Orson Welles directed The Magnificent Ambersons like a man who never had a moment of doubt. The sweeping camera shots at the Amberson ball, the cinematography which manages to be realistic and expressionistic in equal doses without throwing off our eye, the cast of fine actors giving wonderful, nuanced performances—all of it works together with some of the best damn mise en scene anyone ever put in front of a camera to create a towering achievement…almost.

Because how can you talk about The Magnificent Ambersons without talking about the last ten minutes? The last ten minutes of this movie are some of the worst ten minutes on film. Placed into context with the rest of the film they may well be the worst ten minutes in the history of cinema.

Of course, that’s not Orson Welles’ fault because he didn’t direct them. Over the years we’ve read the original shooting script, we’ve seen the surviving stills of the missing footage, and with all we’ve read and seen there can be little doubt that the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons which Welles wrote and directed is as good as the rest of his film. There is even room for the speculation that with this footage restored and with Welles’ original editing scheme in place (his film was 148 minutes long and this one is, sigh, 88 minutes) that The Magnificent Ambersons would be his best film. I think it is very safe to say that. If you were feeling saucy you might even go so far as to assert that The Magnificent Ambersons, the one Welles made, might very well have been the best movie anyone ever made.

The problem is, of course, that The Magnificent Ambersons is gone. It was destroyed. It was literally chopped up and set on fire by the assholes who ran RKO pictures. The new ending, that brutally, heartbreakingly inept ten minutes, was shot by a studio flunky who would later go on to direct movies that were great. He would win Oscars and make millions.

Welles, however, slipped into exile. He went onto direct other masterpieces (Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake), but he never had full control of a Hollywood production again. After Ambersons, he was always suspect, and his films were regularly butchered by studio heads and fly-by-night independent producers. Ambersons was the end of the dream that began when Welles first signed his legendary Hollywood contract.

So what do we say about The Magnificent Ambersons, the only one we have left? At best you can call it a mangled masterpiece. Picture, if you will, someone painting a fat grin on the Mona Lisa the day after da Vinci finished it, so that no one living had ever seen the original. Could you still call it a great painting? Imagine a functioning illiterate rewriting the last act of Hamlet so that Claudius and Hamlet worked out their problems off stage and the play closed with Claudius and Gertrude strolling offstage arm-in-arm. What would you call that play?

Or to put it another way: if by some miracle we uncovered Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons tomorrow, then we could let RKO’s The Magnificent Ambersons fall into the sea (unless we wanted to keep it for a DVD extra). What does that say about the actual value of the film we have, this vile imposter posing as an Orson Welles movie? We would dismiss it in an instant, like we would ditch a boring date if the love of our life swept into the room.

We don’t do Welles any favors to act as if this is a good movie. We insult him by acting as if these 88 minutes are what he created for us. They are not. And, we should note, Welles himself could not bring himself to watch The Magnificent Ambersons as we have it. It reduced him to tears, like a man looking into the coffin of his child.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a complete movie only in our minds. It is the great lost film. With something like von Stroheim’s Greed we can say it would be interesting to see his original uncut nine-hour production, but can we say we really, deeply want to? With The Magnificent Ambersons we would jump at the chance. Once you see the imposter, your mind begins to wonder, what would the real one look like? How much better would the ending be, how much better would those long sweeping ballroom shots be? What would this story feel like if it were allowed to affect us? Watching the RKO version is like meeting the love of your life and watching them get run over by a beer truck.

That, really, is the final tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons, the way the real film calls out to us from its grave, enchanting us with the real promise of brilliance.

I bet it was a great movie.

For Welles Fans

Anyone with any interest in Welles must watch the amazing full length interview he gave to the BBC in 1982. It's an extraordinary piece of work. I've never seen anything in which the sheer complexity of the man came across so well. He was a brilliant artist, one the real jewels of our cinema, but he was also maddening and self-absorbed. Of course, he was also funny, charming and tragic. All of this comes across in this BBC documentary. Check it out.

And if I've stoked your interest in The Magnificent Ambersons, you may want to read an overview at what went down at RKO. Here's a piece from (the place to go, by the way, for all things Orson).

Finally, there are several excellent books about Welles. One best of the best is the newly released Orson Welles At Work, a magisterial overview of the director's entire career. It's huge, packed full of gorgeous photographs, and exhaustively researched. It's pricey, but it's worth every cent. The other must-have book, perfect for the beginning fan and far more affordable, is This Is Orson Welles, a book length interview between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Welles expert Jonathan Rosenbaum. The interview is wide-ranging, covering art, politics, religion and, of course, movies. Welles was a great raconteur and with Bogdanovich he has a knowledgeable, sympathetic listener. Bogdanovich and Rosenbaum have packed the book full of goodies: memos, sketches, photographs, a day-by-day timeline of Welles' career (it's shocking how much Welles worked) and a section detailing the mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons. Check it out.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Second (or is it the Third?) Coming of Jim Thompson

For those of us who think that roman noir doesn't get much better than Jim Thompson, there is great news out there in Hollywood that Casey Affleck is going to be starring in an adaption of Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. This great news for three reasons:

1. Jim Thompson was the greatest postwar crime novelist. No one was better at capturing the sick underbelly of American society during the Eisenhower years (and beyond). The Killer Inside Me is widely considered to be his best book, the archetypal serial killer story. Now, I have to admit that I've never been that big a fan of this particular book. I have other favorites. A Hell Of A Woman is, I think, his most complete novel--a brutal character study of a misogynist who gets what's coming to him. Savage Night, the story of the undoing of a hitman, is Thompson's most surreal trip (the last twenty pages are insane). After Dark, My Sweet is an oddly effecting Thompson romance of all things, a rare example of him writing about flawed but essentially good people. The Getaway is perhaps a little too consciously arty, but there are worse things you can say about a book. The Killer Inside Me is a fine novel, but JT told essentially the same story in Pop. 1280, a book I find more compelling. Still, I must say, the idea of an adaptation of Thompson's most highly praised novel is exciting. I'm totally open to a film that takes the story and interprets it into something great. Which has been done before...

2. It's been eighteen years since the great Thompson revival of 1990. By my count there were three great Thompson adaptations around that time.

  • After Dark, My Sweet (1990) starred Jason Patric, Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern, and was so damn good it left you thinking, incorrectly, that director James Foley was going to be a great artist. It is the best Thompson film, a superb film noir that perfectly captures the romantic nihilism (there's a phrase for you) of Thompson's most haunting story.
  • The Grifters (199o) starred John Cusack, Angelica Huston and Annette Benning and it's another top rate piece of work, a movie that goes all the way with the dark implications of the book's central relationship between a con man and his smarter, more ruthless, mother.
  • Bertrand Tavernier directed Coup de Torchon, a French adaptation of Thompson's Pop. 1280. It takes Thompson's story of a small town Texas lawman gone very, very bad and it moves the action to French colonial Africa. It's a fine piece of work, all the better for proving that Thompson's work can translate.
So, there are at least three great Thompson movies out there (I have not seen Maggie Greenwald's The Kill-Off, nor Serie Noir, Alain Corneau's French adaptation of A Hell of a Woman; I have seen both versions of The Getaway, about which the less said is better). Thompson's work has proven to be extremely adaptable.

3. It looks like he's got a good crew of adapters this time around, too. Casey Affleck is a potentially brilliant choice to play Lou Ford, the small town deputy sheriff who moonlights as a serial killer. Last year, Affleck turned in a strong performance in his brother's tight, smart neonoir Gone Baby Gone. Even more impressive was his performance in Andrew Dominik's vastly underrated revisionist western The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (a film I recommended a couple of months ago). In his portrayal of Robert Ford you get a sense of the duality Affleck could bring to Thompson's most notorious two-faced killer. He'll be joined by Elias Koteas and Jessica Alba. The screenplay, encouragingly, is by Andrew Dominik and directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Filming begins in January. Keep your fingers crossed. In the meantime check out these cool ass sites:

The Killer Beside Me: The Jim Thompson Resource Page

Bleeker Books' Page On Thompson-Lots of good links on this one

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Sopranos and the Anxiety of Decay

(warning: the following essay contains spoilers. If you don't want to know who does or does not get whacked in The Sopranos, I suggest you wait to read this. It's not going anywhere.)

Over coffee this morning, I read a piece in the Style section of the Washington Post questioning the gloomy nature of so many recent films. "Bleak is chic" it said, implying that our current cinema's existential anguish was something of a fad. The irony of this, of course, was that the rest of today's massive Sunday edition was one big bundle of bad news. There were articles about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the ever metastasizing economic crisis, and the inevitable success of Iran's nuclear program. Hell, there was even an article about this year's mysterious shortage of acorns from the Midwest to the east coast. There is a lot of bad news out there. Is it any wonder that our movies are gloomy?

The last seven or eight years--let's call them the "Bush years" for short--have been rough by anyone's estimation. In those years, we suffered the worst terrorist attack in our history, launched two wars, lost trillions of dollars, and watched our once Colossus-like status in the world diminish on nearly every front. The long wars have undermined our reputation for military dominance, while the economic meltdown that is ravaging every market in the world has soiled--if not ruined--our reputation as the masters of finance. These have been dark times, and our art (from Cormac McCarthy to The Dark Knight) has reflected the deepening anxiety of the time.

Thinking about it, though, has any work of art captured the Bush years like The Sopranos? The run of the show (from 1999 to 2007) fit snugly into the era, beginning with the outgoing Clinton administration and ending just as the Bush administration was imploding. When you look back over the show, you see how clearly creator David Chase and his writers and directors captured the times they were living through.

The Sopranos was a show about many things. One could start an inventory of the themes it addressed either explicitly or implicitly in its eight year run: family, crime, sexism, racism, homophobia, psychotherapy, violence. One could keep this list going because more than most works of cinematic art The Sopranos cast a wide net. Chase utilized the 86 episodes of his show to dramatize the complex overlapping of the personal, the social and the political. Yet the reason I started thinking about the show this morning is because its overriding theme--the constant thread running through all the others and binding them together--was the anxiety of decay in modern America.

It's funny that I've been talking about the show in past tense when, really, we must now think of it like an era-defining novel, alive and always unfolding, a piece of time captured for us by a great artist and his collaborators.

1. The Certainty of Loss

“Things are trending downward,” Tony Soprano says in the first episode of the series. This fear of impending doom is there at the beginning and it will be revisited time and again over six seasons (spread out over eight years). On one level (the mob level) the characters live with the fear of being murdered. Over the course of the series many important characters—Ralph, Adriana, Christopher, Bobby—die violently. These sudden violent “whackings” and the tension and horror which accompanies them is, of course, a major staple of the mob movie genre The Sopranos ostensibly belongs to, and they are no doubt part of the excitement of the show. Yet it is important to note how often the show concerns itself with more ordinary, in no less harrowing, forms of decline and death.

The series begins, after all, with Tony having a MRI to diagnose the cause of his fainting spells. Uncle Junior, who for the first four seasons at least is the most verbally entertaining character in the show, gradually declines and eventually gives way to dementia. Paulie Walnuts, at once the toughest and most insecure of Tony’s crew, is a cauldron of phobias and neuroses, chief among them a fear of germs and cancer. Johnny Sack, Tony’s adversary for much of season five and a man who knows how to smoke a cigarette, dies of lung cancer. For a non-medical show, The Sopranos spends a lot of time in hospitals and not just for gunshot wounds.

But the anxiety found within the show is about more than just illness. More specifically, the major undercurrent of the show’s psychology is the certainty of loss. From the incessant gorging on food, the constant chasing of sexual release, the boozing, the gambling, the drug abuse, and the pathological pursuit of financial gain, to the more respectable, and perhaps healthier, outlets of religion, art and psychiatry, the universe of The Sopranos is filled with characters who are always attempting to distract themselves from their absolute knowledge of their own eventual decline. They all know the end is coming, but no one wants to face it.

2. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”

In the final season this fear reaches a fever pitch as The Sopranos fully embraces a post-9/11 paranoia. Tony’s fears of terrorist infiltration are addressed many times, and in an interesting and telling twist his prime adversary in the FBI, Agent Harris, is taken off his case and moved to counterterrorism (where, we note, he begins to unravel and becomes in many ways one of Tony’s henchmen). Nowhere is the post-9/11 anxiety felt more acutely than in the subplot about “the two Arabs” who hang around the strip club for a time and then disappear. The show’s final episodes find Tony and Agent Harris discussing the two “suspect” men more and more often until the fear of terrorist attack hangs over everything like a cloud that never rains.

The anxiety extends even into the family, where Tony and Carmela live in constant fear of the imminent collapse of their world. The most fascinating example of this tension is the development of their son Anthony Junior. From a sweet—though self-centered—youngster into a vacuous teen, and finally into a troubled young adult, AJ is a ship without a mooring. Despite having an intact, loving (if deeply flawed) set of parents, despite having money and notoriety as the son of a famous gangster, despite having a religious (if hypocritical) upbringing, AJ has, by show’s end, become a mass of fear, rage and depression.

He is not unlike his father in these ways, of course. Yet, as even Tony points out, AJ is not able to “handle” these pressures like his father. That Tony handles his own fear and rage with violence, overeating, drugs, booze and an endless series of extramarital dalliances is precisely the point. AJ is both better and worse off than his father. When in the depth of his son’s depression, Tony tells him “Go out. Get a blow job” and arranges for AJ to hang out with a band of racist, drunken frat boys, Tony is only prescribing a cure which, to his limited understanding of his own psychosis, has “worked” for him. That it does not work at all for AJ is to AJ's credit. But there is nothing there to fill the void. He reads Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and trembles in terror at the apocalyptic vision of a blood-dimmed tide and the rising of the rough beast in the Middle East.

When, in “Made In America”, the final episode of the series, AJ decides to confront his fears of nuclear annihilation by joining the Army, his parents intervene to stop him by arranging a job on a movie set. The fear and sense of hopelessness which has beset their son nearly all his life, and which drive him to attempt suicide, are dealt with in the end—after all the talk of school, ambition and responsibility—by buying him off.

Just as AJ’s problem with crippling anxiety in these final episodes rings true of his character throughout the series, so to does his parents’ solution to it. Tony and Carmela have always thrown money at their problems. Their marriage, by season six, is as much a financial arrangement as it is loving partnership. When Carmela becomes overly interested in the strange disappearance of Adriana, Tony essentially buys her a career in real estate to keep her distracted.

They both face a particularly bourgeois dilemma at the intersection of their post-9/11 anxiety and their son’s directionlessness and anxiety. They fear terrorist infiltration and attack, the disruption of their personal and material security, and they support the Bush administration and the “War on Terror” (Tony says at one point that he would elect Dick Cheney “president of the universe”), and yet they do not want to see their son involved in the fighting. They would rather buy him a new car and get him a flashy job with promises of his own dance club down the road.

3. The Cut to Black

Will it work? Chase’s final masterstroke is to end the show with all its anxiety intact. Things are still trending downward. The Arabs still haven’t been found. Carlo is missing and is probably with the cops. Christopher is dead. Bobby is dead. Silvio is in a comma he will probably not pull out of. The violence with New York may or may not be over.

In the final scene, Tony is at a diner waiting for his family. Everyone is running late. He plays a song on the jukebox. A man comes in and sits down at the counter. He glances over at Tony. Carmela comes in, apologizing for being late. AJ wanders in. Outside, Meadow tries to parallel park. And there is still that man at the counter, looking over at Tony and his family as they eat onion rings. The man at the counter gets up. He walks to the bathroom. Meadow rushes in. Tony looks up.

Cut to black.

With this ending (invoking the diner assassination in The Godfather) Chase is not simply trying to wrap up his story (nor is he simply refusing to wrap up his story), he is dramatizing the state of fear we live in, the fear which has been mounting in the series, and in society, since the series began. The events of September 11th and the violent drudgery of the Iraq war are not simply the cause of these fears, they are the quickening of fears built into the modern American psyche. Tony and his family and friends all fear they are living in an America trending downward and coming apart at the seams. Chase offers no relief from this fear. He just shows us the seams stretching.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dead Reckoning (1947)

God, this movie is a miserable piece of shit. 

DEAD RECKONING is so profoundly bad that it may take multiple viewings for all its badness to sink in, but I would not suggest you subject yourself to repeated viewings just to grasp how deeply it sucks. It may be worth seeing once, however, if just to know how low the genre can go.

Oddly enough, on paper, DEAD RECKONING sounds promising: it stars two of noir's greatest icons, Humphrey Bogart and Lizabeth Scott. It’s directed by John Cromwell, director of the brilliant CAGED. And the plot isn’t terrible: Bogart plays an Army captain just back from the war who is trying to solve the murder of his best friend. His search leads him to a sexy nightclub singer played by Scott. It also leads him to the sleazy owner of the nightclub (Morris Carnovsky) and a psychopathic goon played by Marvin Miller.

With those elements the movie should be good, so why it is so awful? Well, for starters, it never gets beyond the point of being a cobbled together mess of elements. The whole movie is warmed over Bogie highlights stolen without much skill from John Huston and Howard Hawks. As more than one fan of THE MALTESE FALCON has noted, DEAD RECKONING lifts entire passages out of that movie’s dialog (FALCON: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.” DR: “When a guy’s pal is killed, he ought to do something about it.”). It’s discomforting to catch Bogart attempting to be Bogart. At his best, there was no greater movie star, but Bogart could be shockingly lazy. He’s being really lazy here, rehashing old lines in bad copies of old scenes. He never really let go of this laziness, and throughout the rest of his career, he would alternate fresh triumphs like IN A LONELY PLACE with banal CASABLANCA-knockoffs like TOKYO JOE. His tendency to cannibalize his past successes began with this film.

Part of his problem here was that he just didn’t like Lizabeth Scott. At the time this picture was made, she was being billed by producer Hal B. Wallis as “The Threat”—or, as you might also put it, the “new” Lauren Bacall. Since Bogart had just married the old Lauren Bacall, it’s doubtful he was very interested in helping along Scott’s career.

Which leads us to the big problem with the film, the overriding problem which transforms it from being merely a cheap FALCON rip-off and turns it into something truly repellent. This is one of the most misogynistic movies ever made. If DEAD RECKONING has a theme, the theme is this: women are no goddamn good. It’s not just that Bogart makes a monotonous series of allusions to “babes” and “dolls” and treats every woman on screen like a slave on an auction block (he shuts the door of a phone booth in one woman’s face, and then cracks, “Sorry, gorgeous, I didn’t see what you looked like”). His dialog goes beyond chauvinism or objectification. This character is obsessively fixated on demeaning women. Besides the plot, it’s pretty much all he talks about. The low point comes when Bogart is given a long, creepy monologue wherein he relates his fantasy of shrinking a woman down and sticking her in his pocket to keep her quiet until he’s ready to have sex with her. It’s impossible to watch this scene without squirming. It is the nadir of the Bogart persona.

Tellingly, DEAD RECKONING is a movie populated almost entirely by men. Except for a brief appearance by Ruby Dandridge as a housekeeper, Lizabeth Scott has the only female speaking part in the film. This means that all of the film’s bile is directed at her. Scott responds by giving probably the worst performance of her career. By all reports, she didn’t like Bogart any more than he liked her, and the only time she seems to wake up in the film is at the end when she tries to kill him. What is sad about all of this, of course, is that Lizabeth Scott is one of the truly great women of film noir, yet because of Bogart’s star power, it’s a pretty safe bet that most people will see her for the first time in this movie. That’s a shame, and such viewers are urged to make haste to a copy of PITFALL or TOO LATE FOR TEARS or STOLEN FACE. Hell, even DESERT FURY.

The final point to make about DEAD RECKONING is to note how its misogyny grows out of its laziness. Someone involved in this movie obviously watched THE MALTESE FALCON and noted how tersely Bogart treats Mary Astor. What they failed to realize was that a) Bogart treats everyone in that movie tersely, b) his terseness is a defensive mechanism, and c) he isn’t mean to Mary Astor because she’s a woman, he’s mean to her in spite of it. That’s what makes him great. He can’t be swayed by feminine wiles any more than he can be frightened by goons with guns. Someone on DEAD RECKONING confused that stoicism with a contempt for women as blatant as an open sewer.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

James Bond's Quantum of Solace

When I was a kid, I loved action movies. I suppose that puts me in some pretty voluminous company, and it might even seem to qualify me as a fanboy. After all, I grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books, and cartoons. I collected graphic novels and stood in line to see Batman three times in 1989. But, alas, I'm really not a fanboy. I was 14 in 1989, and I'm glad to say that I moved on. As I peruse the film world today, I see that the fanboys have damn near taken over. I wish them well, but I am not one of them. When I discovered Bogart in high school, I started to lose interest in summer blockbusters. When I discovered Welles and Hitchcock and Bergman, I realized that movies could be about a lot more than exploding buildings.


I don't want to make myself out to be more of a film snob than I am. (Understand, I am absolutely a film snob and happy to be one. If you don't understand that the Spider-Man movies sucked, or you don't understand that the Lord of the Rings were beyond shitty, then we will have to work on our definitions of "entertainment" and "movie"). While I am a snob, I still like the occasional action film. The energy released by their stories and the craftsmanship of their making still impress me. Raiders of the Lost Ark and the original Die Hard are both, I would submit, good movies. The best action film I've seen of late--and I think I would put it up there with Raiders and Die Hard--is The Bourne Ultimatum. It's a fine piece of work, with thrilling set pieces and perhaps the single best fight scene I've ever seen.

All of which brings me to this piece of news: today I saw the new James Bond flick. I went to see it despite the generally bad reviews it's gotten. I guess I was just in the mood for a big budget action movie. I'd just finished writing a piece about film noir's greatest brawls, and, oddly enough, it put me in the mood for Bond.

First let me say, the film is better than a lot of critics have suggested. Almost all of the negative reviews I've read (including the Ebert review I linked above and Dana Stevens' piece over on Slate) have lamented the lack of the old Bond touches. The new film not much fun, they say.

What's true is that the film is much darker than any Bond film that has come before it. Daniel Craig plays Bond as a killing machine, and, yes, he has more in common with Damon's Jason Bourne than he does with any Bond who has proceeded him. Part of the reason for this is that for two movies now the filmmakers have placed Bond in an actual story. Quantum of Solace is a sequel--not just a follow up--to Casino Royale and it continues the story that began there. If you haven't seen Casino Royale lately--and I watched it last night to catch myself up--you will probably not know what's going on in this movie. Of course, narrative cohesion has never been a big part of a Bond movie, but here there's more of a plot (of sorts) to follow. Bond is
investigating the betrayal and subsequent death of his girlfriend, Vesper Lynd, from the first movie. This leads him to the discovery of a secret organization called Quantum. A bunch of action follows. Just about every scene ends with Bond beating the hell out of someone, usually just before he kills them.

But Daniel Craig remains a compelling actor. He's the first actor to play Bond who has an essentially sad persona, and he gives the character a gravity it's never had before. Is this a bad thing? Many critics seem to think so, but I'm not so sure. I have a theory that your conception of James Bond owes a lot to the actor who originated the role for you. I began with Roger Moore who often played the character as an almost campy parody. I loved it as a kid, but have you seen those movies lately? The Spy Who Loved Me, Octopussy, A View To Kill...and let's not forget Moonraker (which maybe the worst Bond ever, though Live and Let Die has the added strike of being racist). These are not good movies. They do not hold up well. The best Moore movie is For Your Eyes Only, which has its hokey moments but also tries to achieve a certain level of tension and pathos (remember Bond at his wife's grave?). I liked Moore--a charming, lightweight actor--but I don't have a lot of nostalgia for his Bonds or their progressively building cheesiness. Craig and the handlers of the franchise have made the decision to ground the series somewhat (this is relative, of course, because through the goofy gadgets have been downplayed, Bond himself is now capable of superhuman speed, strength and endurance). Craig's Bond maybe even more of a superhero physically, but he's also perhaps the first plausible human being. What's happening to the character is what has been happening to superheroes in graphic novels for at least the last two decades, he is acquiring more and more of the psychological trappings of reality.

Another aspect of the series that's changed is a shift away from misogyny. Craig's Bond seems as obsessed with women as his predecessors, but he's not out for conquest. His relationship with Vesper in Casino Royale was the most emotionally interesting relationship the character's ever had with a woman (a large part of the credit for that goes to Eva Green's performance as Vesper). In this film he's paired with Olga Kurylenko. She's beautiful and charismatic, but there has been some criticism of their relationship because as at least one critic put it "Bond doesn't sleep with her", oddly lamenting, in 2008, that man isn't the subject and the girl the object. What's different here is that they have an actual relationship. Bond seems, gasp!, interested in her. You know, like one person being interested in another person. He's not turning into a monk--he still "beds" a pretty girl in the middle of the film, but even that relationship has more depth than we're used to from Jimmy B. The new series, at least for these first two installments, doesn't view Bond the way it used to, as that playboy ladykiller who essential raped Pussy Galore at the end of Goldfinger, which itself was a step up from Fleming's original novel in which Bond, ah, cured Pussy Galore of lesbianism. Call me a wimp, but I'm thrilled James Bond isn't raping lesbians anymore. Craig's Bond actually seems to like women, and that's an improvement.

After this, I'll go back to not thinking much about big budget action flicks for a while, but I will be interested to see where the character goes from here. When is the last time anyone said that about James Bond?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Report From Noir City DC

Yesterday I went to the AFI Silver (located in downtown Silver Spring, MD) to see a couple of the best noirs ever made. The films were part of a series the AFI is running called Noir City DC. The films they were showing were The Prowler by Joseph Losey and Raw Deal by Anthony Mann. I'm a big fan of both of these movies, but you rarely (i.e. damn-near never) get to see them in the theater.

The Prowler is a full-tilt masterpiece, a black-as-midnight story about an unhappily married woman named Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) who calls the cops after she spots a peeping tom outside her window. The cops show up to investigate, but unfortunately for Susan one of them is a charming rake named Webb Garwood (played by the congenitally underappreciated Van Heflin) who takes one look at her and decides she belongs to him. This film is a gorgeous piece of work, lovingly restored by the Film Noir Foundation, a nonprofit outfit that saves these beautiful old, largely forgotten crime flicks. The film isn't available on DVD, but bootleg versions are floating around out there and, of course, the FNF sponsors showings in different cities. Try to find it if you can. Losey's direction is subtle (we're never exactly sure what Webb's game is, though we're sure he has one), and the script by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo is a sophisticated piece of work that keeps getting more complicated as the film progresses. Both Susan and Webb continue to surprise us, their characters changing in relation to each other until the very end of the film. What, for example, does Susan want from Webb? It's hard to say--in many ways, she's as complicated as he is--but what's easy to say is how extraordinary Keyes is as Susan. Her performance here is exhibit A for my theory--born out by 99 River Street and The Killer That Stalked New York--that Evelyn Keyes was the most underrated actress of the 1950s.

The second film on the bill was Anthony Mann's Raw Deal. Mann is most famous today for his Westerns with Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, but among noir geeks he is generally considered one of the masters of the classic era crime flick. His work was heavy on ass-kicking (his rough-and-tumble movies are among the most violent in the genre, up there with Karlson and Fleischer) and they were also enlivened by the work of cinematograper John Alton. Here's another theory for you: Alton was the most important artist in noir. Bar none. No director, actor or actress was greater than Alton. His films will remind some newbies of Sin City, and it's clear to see his influence on Miller's original graphic novels as well as the film. Believe me, though, Alton is better. See Raw Deal--available on DVD--to see what I'm talking about. It's gorgeous piece of work, featuring Clarie Trevor and Marsha Hunt as two women in love with the same escaped convict (Dennis O'Keefe). The three leads are terrific and Mann's direction is brutal and immediate (he loved to move action up until it nearly touched the camera lens). Alton's lighting is stark and gorgeous, no one did high contrast black and white like this guy, and his work is here is among his best (He Walked By Night, T-Men, and the imperfect-though- underrated I, The Jury). If all that isn't enough, the movie also features perhaps Raymond Burr's best villain performance.

The program yesterday also featured introductions to the films by Foster Hirsch and Eddie Muller. Hirsch is the author of a terrific noir book called The Dark Side of the Screen as well as the biography of Otto Preminger, one of the genre's great practitioners. He's a semi-regular at the AFI. I saw him introduce Preminger's Fallen Angel and Angel Face.

Eddie Muller is a hero of mine, a great author and a hell of a activist. He wrote the single best--and certainly the most entertaining overview--of film noir out there, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, as well as Dark City Dames a collective biography of Evelyn Keyes, Ann Savage, Marie Windsor, Colleen Gray, Audrey Totter and Jane Greer. He's also the author of a couple of good noir novels and the director of a short film called The Grand Inquisitor, which was screened after Raw Deal (it's a fun piece of business featuring a creepy performance by Marsha Hunt). His most important work, however, might be as a preservationist of classic film noir. He's the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation. I got to speak with him before the showings, and he told me that he felt chief job was to be an advocate for these films, struggling to get the studios to see the goldmine they had in their vaults. I asked about Too Late For Tears--a personal obsession of mine and one of the very best noirs ever made--and he said it was next of FNF's list of films to restore. That means that you and I might one day get to see Liz Scott's best movie projected in a theater. This is due to the efforts of Eddie and his organization.

To learn more about the Film Noir Foundation (including how to lend support) check out their website:

Quite honestly, this festival, which started Oct. 17th has exceeded my expectations. They had Farley Granger in town to attend the showing of Strangers on a Train, screened the incomparable Detour (not a great print unfortunately, but still...), showed Mann's great Side Street, and unleashed Tomorrow is Another Day, a Steve Cochran thriller which is obscure even by noir standards. They also showed a couple of overrated classics, Double Indemnity and They Live By Night. All in all, the festival has been a raging success, and still to come are Kiss of Death and Night and the City.

If you live in the DC area, you owe it to yourself to try to make it out to the remaining days of the festival. The AFI is the best theater in the country, and their presentation of these great films is topnotch (the pristine print of Raw Deal was on loan from the Library of Congress). In his closing remarks about the festival, Eddie referred to it as the "first" DC Noir. That's a good sign. Maybe next year we'll get some Liz Scott.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Three You Might Have Missed

Here are three excellent, and largely unseen, new releases. The first is still playing in theaters, the other two have made their way to DVD. Check them out.

1. Frozen River-so far this the best movie I've seen this year. Directed by Courtney Hunt, it stars Melissa Leo as a woman desperate to raise money to support her family. She accepts a "job" with a young Mohawk woman (Misty Upham) transporting illegals over the Canada/US border. This is a taut, moving, beautiful piece of work. Leo and Upham are terrific.

2. The Fall-there was nothing released this year that comes anywhere close to the visual ecstasy of this stunning piece of work by Tarsem Singh. A little Romanian girl in 1920s Hollywood is convalescing in a hospital when she meets a disturbed young stunt man. He's in the hospital after a possible suicide attempt. They become friends and he begins to tell her a story. We see the story through her fecund imagination. This is a visual masterpiece, a rich, invigorating piece of cinema.

3. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford-when I saw this movie in the theater late last year half of the audience got up and left. It's long, slowly paced and thick with an unspoken homoeroticism. Not exactly what most people expect from a western starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James. It is a fine piece of work, though, a revisionist Western in the mold of Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Hellman's The Shooting. Casey Affleck gives a disturbing performance as Robert Ford, giving the famous assassin a humanity no one's ever attempted.